Original Document
Original Document
John Brashear recollections of Professor Langley's flying machine, 1925.


FOR a period of thirty years following my first visit in 1876 to the old Allegheny Observatory I was associated with Professor Samuel P. Langley, a man of magnificent intellect, one never satisfied with a half-proved hypothesis, but always reaching out for final proof before he announced any of his great discoveries.

For three years I was associated with Professor Langley in his investigations of the great problem of flight. The story of how he became interested in this problem is a long one, but suffice it to say that his original purpose was not to construct a flying machine, but to determine, if possible, the laws governing flight. He undertook to solve this most fascinating problem in his usual rigorously scientific manner. He always commenced at the bottom and worked right straight up.

Much of the apparatus for these investigations was made in our shops. He would make sketches and tell me what he wanted and I would work out the mechanical problems involved and supply the apparatus. His assistant, Professor Very, carried on the researches at the Observatory after Langley had moved to Washington, and we made apparatus for him, too. After 1890, however, Langley's researches in flight were carried on largely in Washington. In May, 1896, his steam-driven aerodrome model, launched by a catapult which shot it off the roof of a houseboat on the Potomac, made a beautiful, steady flight, and, gliding gracefully down, alighted gently on the water none the worse for its trip except for a wetting. That flight convinced a hitherto skeptical world of the practicability of mechanical flight, and at a later period Langley himself said:

I have brought to a close the portion of the work which seemed to be specially mine: the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight. For the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea, it is probable that the world may look to others... The great universal highway overhead is now soon to be opened.

In 1903, just as he had reached the point of success with his man-carrying flying machine, the failure of one part of the mechanism wrecked it. It wrecked my dear friend's hopes, too, and the unkindly comments of the press overwhelmed him. He passed from this earth in 1906, feeling in many ways that his life-work had been a failure, but the successful work in aviation since then has been based upon Langley's pioneer investigations.

Credit: John A. Brashear, The Autobiography of a Man Who Loved the Stars. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1925.
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